Sunday, July 17, 2011

HuffPo gets greedy...and lazy...and stupid...again

The Huffington Post is once again being criticized for “over-aggregation”. It’s not the first time, and surely won’t be the last. A piece written by a now-suspended Amy Wise for HuffPo was deemed by the original writer, Simon Dumenco, to have gleaned much too much from his Ad Age piece, "Poor Steve Jobs Had to Go Head to Head With Weinergate in the Twitter Buzzstakes. And the Weiner Is ...". Dumenco accused the HuffPo piece of summarizing all of the key points of his June article before placing a “disingenuous” link to his piece at the bottom of the page that resulted in less than 60 hits on his Ad Age story.

Although these tactics may technically cover aggregators, they’re a pretty lame way of making things legit. As reported by Mathew Ingram at, Dumenco accepted the apology of Peter Goodman, the new Exec Ed of HuffPo, but said “unethical aggregation is essentially embedded in the very DNA of The Huffington Post.”

Ingram goes on to point out that much of journalism is based on aggregation. Indeed it is. Unless you are writing about an insanely well-guarded scoop (and let’s face it, that’s pretty much non-existent today), you are going to rely on some degree on what has been written about your topic in the past. There is nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time. I think the problem comes when writers have nothing original to say about their topic. Does the word “angle” mean anything to anyone anymore? Better yet, does plagiarism? That almost feels like a defunct word these days - kind of like anvil or outhouse. It looks like the HuffPo writers are treading dangerously close to the ‘p’ word, if, in fact, that word still means anything in these days of non-stop news cycles and hyper-aggregation.

Any doofus can cover the same old story over and over by poaching a little from here, a little from there. The point is to have an original voice, to do something new and interesting with the same old information. I understand this might not be the most profitable way to spend time when you’re trying to churn out hundreds of stories a day, but if this isn’t your goal, then you’re not really a writer. You’re just a regurgitator of someone else’s thoughts.

One of the more interesting facets of the story for me is that Wise (such an ironic name) seems to have poached only from Dumenco. She paraphrased ONE other story. Come on, sister! Put a little effort into it! If you’re not going to have any original thoughts of your own, at least vomit up several other peoples’ thoughts. And that’s not to say that the only problem I have with this is that she only cited one other piece. But it’s definitely a big part of the problem.

Erik Wemple from the Washington Post said in his opinion piece last week that HuffPo has a “standard” of linking to at least three other news sources for their stories. That’s great and all, but clearly some of these writers are slapping links into their stories just for the sake of meeting that yardstick. And the writer should give the reader a reason to click on those links. Otherwise, what purpose does it serve other than meeting HuffPo’s (and other such aggregators’) Herculean “standards”?

In his response post to the HuffPo debacle “What It’s Like to Get Used and Abused by The Huffington Post”, Dumenco poses the question, “What constitutes unfair – unethical – aggregation?” That really is the key question here, and one that Goodman did not attempt to answer in his response to Dumenco. “We should have either taken what you call ‘the minimalist approach’ or simply linked directly to your story. That is how we train our writers and editors to handle stories such as this…this instance is entirely unacceptable and collides directly with the values that are at work in our newsroom,” wrote Goodman in an email to Dumenco.

Really, Goodman? Let’s just see how fast the next, basically identical story about HuffPo surfaces. It’s only a matter of time.

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